Honesty as a Weapon

One reason I support the “virtue” approach to morality is that, attractive as some moral rules are in the abstract, there are almost always cases in which good judgment requires either appropriate interpretation or even suspension of them.

Take the moral rule that one should always be honest. Honesty is clearly a virtue, but it can also be used as a weapon or as a cover for viciousness. I have on many, many occasions heard people say rude, mean, or insensitive things to others, and then defended their behavior by saying something like, “I’m just being honest.” I’m sure you have heard such things too. The fact that one is really thinking something does not by itself justify uttering or making public what one is thinking. Having followed the moral rule does not absolve one from the judgment of having behaved badly.

Thus honesty is a virtue in the way, for example, courage is. We should all strive to be courageous, but, as Aristotle argued, being courageous does not mean fighting every battle. It means, instead, fighting all and only those battles that good judgment—or “right reason”—indicates should be fought. By contrast, fighting every battle leads not only to a captious and truculent (and hence unpleasant) personality, but it also dissipates one’s effectiveness. Once others become aware that one is the sort of person who fights everything, they begin discounting what one says and does. One becomes The Guy Who argues About Everything, and it is all too easy to ignore such a person—even when he is right.

Such a person displays not courage, but rashness. That is just as much a vice as when one fails to fight battles that should be fought; such a person too is not courageous, but cowardly.

Similarly with honesty. The person who always speaks his mind is not honest but callous (cruel, meanspirited, etc.). This person probably also has an inflated sense of self-importance, thinking that speaking his mind is more important than whatever psychological damage he might inflict on others. That is not acting virtuously; it is just as morally blameworthy as the person who does not speak the truth when he should.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing when one should fight a battle or speak the truth. There are no short cuts to this; there is, alas, no finite set of rules that can uniquely determine in advance what one should do. Instead, good judgment is required, and good judgment is a hard-won skill based on experience, practice, comparison of cases, delicacy of perception, and plain good sense (to borrow from Hume’s description of what it takes to have good judgment in artistic matters). 

Perhaps there are some virtues that are simpler, more straightforward, and therefore less requiring of judgment in application. Adam Smith argues that justice is such a virtue, which he contrasts on this criterion with beneficence. Argues Smith:

The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it.

He has a point, but judgment will still be required in both kinds of cases. That leads me to believe that judgment is always necessary, which I think indicates that the key to morally proper behavior always lies first and foremost in the possession of good judgment. (Liberty might also be a necessary prerequisite, but that is the subject of a different conversation.)

That brings me back to honesty. Perhaps the proper rule is something like this: No matter how hard it is, when you should be honest, be honest; but do not be honest when you should not be honest, no matter how enticing it might seem. Not as intellectually satisfying, perhaps, as a single, universal rule, but truer to the complex and multifaceted reality of human social life.

10 thoughts on “Honesty as a Weapon

  1. Jim – I like your defense of judgment overall, but I wonder whether you might be collapsing two problems – the pretended use of virtue as a cover for abuse and the naive or thoughtless dissipation of one’s efforts on behalf of virtue – into the single category “lack of judgment.” Callous, needlessly brutal honesty abuses others and thus is itself actually immoral. “Fighting every battle,” by contrast, is stupid but not immoral. Judgment solves the latter issue but not the former. For avoiding the former, you need the right principle (or “rule” if you wish).

    1. You raise a good point, Jason. I would like to hear what Mark LeBar has to say about this—perhaps he’ll weigh in?—but in the meantime, I am not sure I agree that good judgment does not address both of the cases you raise.

      Perhaps I could put my position this way. Everyone (or, I suppose, nearly everyone) agrees that both courage and honesty are virtues. If an initial characterization of courage and honesty is something like “taking appropriate action” and “saying what should be said,” respectively, then what will remain, and where people of good faith might disagree, is where the boundaries of propriety in the former case and should/should not in the latter case lie. That is when I would deploy my conception of “good judgment.”

      Yet I am not sure that resolves your claim that “fighting every battle” is “stupid but not immoral.” I agree it is stupid; might it not also be immoral, however? I am not sure. Perhaps something like: If you are fighting a battle that you should not fight, you are (probably) inflicting damage you should not be inflicting; inflicting damage that should not be inflicted is immoral; QED. What do you think?

      1. Might intent matter? If the intent is to do the right thing, but one miscalculates and does what one should not do, then isn’t one still doing the right thing after all? For instance, if you think that you have a responsibility to tell the truth in a situation, it would actually be wrong for you not to tell the truth, even if the real fact of the matter is that you did not have a responsibility to tell the truth in that situation. Of course, one also has the responsibility to try not to miscalculate.

  2. You can’t write rules that guarantee ANYTHING per se.

    This is a great quote from an interview between Foucault and Paul Rabinow:

    “I do not think there is anything that is functionally – by its very nature – absolutely liberating. […] The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them”

    The rule is unto itself obviously unimportant, because the Subject actually PROJECTS meaning onto the Object. The interpretation of a social ‘rule’, therefore, depends entirely on the cultural system of meaning being projected upon it.

    Of course, Kant would have understood this completely, being the father of categorical analysis (so I’m not sure I agree with your above comments), but the real problem is: what do you do about it? A society without rules will not function (hence, ‘Kritik der reinen Vernunft’…i.e. just because categorization can be problematic doesn’t mean you abandon it).

    I think this is why democracy and capitalism function so well in the first place: they tend to minimize the discrepancy between cultural change in interpretation (over TIME) of Objects. Meaning/interpretation can adapt and evolve instantaneously on a massive scale.

  3. Your “proper rule” (i.e. to be honest “when you should be”) begs the question – when should we be honest? We cannot be honest if we don’t know what really matters.
    It’s hard to be honest (to want to deny what really matters) when we know it is going to hurt someone’s feelings. And it is wrong to claim that because honesty is a virtue, our honesty means we are not responsible for anyone’s hurt feelings.
    There are three rules:
    1. We have to remain vigilant as to when we and others are being dishonest.
    2. Recognising when someone is being dishonest does not require us to be honest. It means we can be fearlessly honest when we judge that the situation requires it (if another is being emotionally destructive, for example).
    3. Honesty (therefore) requires compassion – we should only be honest if we are willing to (sympathetically) share some of the pain and suffering of those who are dishonest. Some call it unconditional love. Compassionate honesty does not blame the other when they are dishonest, and is not callous – it doesn’t dissociate under the guise of virtue.

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